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Feature Story: Home-Grown Illinois Haven

USDA NRCS Feature Story

Photo of Spence farmA team of three in Livingston County, Illinois operate a diverse, productive, and profitable produce farm. Spence Farms produces a surprising amount of fresh, local produce that finds its way two hours away to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Marty, Kris, and son William Travis live and work the soil on a little slice of heaven in Central Illinois. The Spence Farm is a balanced blend of old and new; it is a conservation farm run by a family of true stewards.

The farm serves also as a not-for-profit educational outlet where school children, visitors and locals learn about agriculture, history, nature, and the photo of Iroquois White Corn seedbenefits of more simplistic and natural living.

Important to this family is an appreciation of heirloom crops. One aspect of their operation is preservation of Iroquois White Corn seed. They also breed and nurture a line of American Guinea hogs still listed as 'critical' on the endangered species list.

This family has a profound appreciation for their farm’s history and they work hard to restore the remaining buildings on the farm and maintain the historic “look” of the site. And yet, Spence Farm has successfully tapped into a specialized market niche that custom orders, plants, grows, and delivers locally grown, fresh, high quality food and produce to a number of Chicago’s five-star restaurants. Talk about the best of both worlds!

Photo of crops inside High TunnelThe plastic covered structures are new additions to the farm. They are called Seasonal High Tunnels and are part of a pilot program of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. NRCS offices in Illinois historically work with large ag producers of grain and row crops. But with recent development of more small and organic operations, NRCS has widened the door of conservation solution assistance to include small-scale specialty crop and organic growers.

Through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or “EQIP,” Marty received both technical assistance and financial support to install two structures on the land. As a small farmer who relies on soil, water, and other natural resources, NRCS assists private landowners and helps them address natural resource-related challenges. For Livingston County’s District Conservationist Eric McTaggert, working with Spence Farm has offered a number of new opportunities.

“It’s been great working with Marty and his family,” says McTaggert. “I’ve been able to offer them some new ideas and options and they’ve taught me about their operation and how they approach things. And the Seasonal High Tunnels are working out well.”

Photo of the Marty Spence and his son William TravisWorking with smaller cropping systems and with more labor-intensive scenarios, McTaggert has found it results in very different soil erosion and conservation issues. “Marty has a very different schedule, a different calendar on his farm. He’s harvesting something fresh every week. It’s a different type of agriculture and we’re seeing more of it,” McTaggert explains.

To select his crops and schedule his work, Marty works with top chefs - taking requests, placing orders for specific produce needs - and even offering seed catalogs so customers can hand-pick what they’ll need. By planning, purchasing, and planting so strategically, his farm operates like a small business - but with a twist, (a green twist).

McTaggert and Marty incorporated NRCS’ newest conservation practice, the Seasonal High Tunnel, on the farm. It is an enclosed, temporary structure designed to protect crops, reduce erosion and crop damage as well as improve management of water quality, water quantity, nutrient and pest management, and more.

Marty learned of the new option and contacted NRCS to learn more. “These tunnels work well for us,” says Marty. “We’re able to grow crops my customers want that would be impossible to grow out here without this shelter and protection. I couldn’t have planted this celery out in the open - the deer would have taken it out immediately.”

Photo of Spence Farm SignIn other words, tunnels offer a secure way to guard against pests and other resource problems. Produce currently leafing up in the tunnels of the Spence Farm includes small and tender mini red potatoes, mini Gerkin cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, cilantro and broccoli seeds for summer, celery and more.

This is a working farm. It is sustainable. Diverse. Healthy. Productive. Professionally maintained. And profitable. Its owners are proud private landowners with a passion for farming. They know their land; they have dark, rich Illinois soil on their hands and their boots. Their son has grown up on this farm and he loves it as much as his parents. The animals they tend are happy and according to William, “quite spoiled.” Most have been given names. Their personalities, wants, and needs are known and (usually) accommodated. Their photos and funny antics are sprinkled all over the Farm’s website and blog posts.

Like any other Midwest farm--small or large--the Spence farm family is hard-working, solid, and soft-hearted. They love their land and use it to make a good living. They tend to it with great care because since 1830, it has been part of the family.

To learn more about Seasonal High Tunnels and EQIP options, contact your local NRCS office or visit www.il.nrcs.usda.gov today.

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For more information, contact:
Paige Mitchell-Buck, IL NRCS State Public Information Officer
IL NRCS State Office
2118 W. Park Court
Champaign, IL 61821
(217) 353-6606
Paige.buck@il.usda.gov